Lesley Riddoch: Strange silence on childcare plans

Childcare will be free in the event of independence, a policy which should appeal to women. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Childcare will be free in the event of independence, a policy which should appeal to women. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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The SNP white paper sets out its early years strategy, but no-one seems to be debating the proposals, writes Lesley Riddoch

Where is the enthusiastic, critical or detailed response to the free childcare system pledged in the Scottish Government’s white paper? After decades campaigning for overstressed mums and under-engaged toddlers you’d think child welfare charities, academics and women’s organisations would be ecstatic. You’d think a policy advanced explicitly in terms of economic benefit might excite comment from money experts and think tanks. And since better childcare is now linked to a Yes vote, political commentators might even opine about its likely impact on the independence gender gap (women are currently 15-22 per cent less likely to plan a Yes vote).

But all these normally outspoken parts of civic society have been virtually silent. What’s going on?

Every other major part of the white paper offer has been subject to seemingly endless scrutiny. Criticism of the proposed shared currency and automatic EU entry vied for headline space bolstered by rebuttals from the Spanish prime minister and former prime minister John Major until the terrible events at the Clutha Bar this weekend pushed everything else aside.

But such an important policy initiative deserves proper scrutiny too. The Scottish Government has turned a massive expansion of childcare into the “independence dividend”. Is that really too “mumsy” for a macho media to analyse seriously? Are opponents reluctant to give such a crowd-pleasing policy the oxygen of further publicity? Are supporters in the voluntary sector scared of getting sucked into implied support for independence – a political stance generally banned by constitution, membership and inclination? Are women waiting to see if the offer seems credible?

Who can say for sure? But the deafening silence is woeful.

Now, it could be the SNP has hit on the perfect policy wheeze. After all, which rival political party is likely to oppose greater help for infants, women and the general economy? It’s as close to motherhood and apple pie as any policy could possibly be and political rivals have their own reasons for muting criticism. Ruth Davidson has valiantly pushed the case for better childcare so although traditionalists prefer “stay at home” mothers, that position is unlikely to be championed by the Scottish Conservatives.

Johan Lamont – adapting Wendy Alexander’s “bring it on” taunt – suggested the SNP could deliver childcare immediately using existing powers if its impact might be so transformational. But further than that she dare not go for risk of raising two valid questions: why did Labour and the Lib Dems not finance such an expansion themselves during the gravy days of pre-crash devolution? And which service would she cut to finance more childcare now? Alex Salmond’s position during the Holyrood debate on the white paper was characteristically combative.

“I will say where we will get the £700 million under independence, and I will then be delighted to hear from the unionist parties where they would get it under the current settlement. Independence gives us the opportunity to make choices—to spend less on weapons of mass destruction and more on educating our children, for example. There are other ways to get £700m. In the theme of the ‘something for nothing’ explanation of society, £700m could be gained by cutting free personal care for the elderly, scrapping prescription charges and scrapping entirely the concessionary travel fare system … if the Labour Party so wishes.”

That’s all true. But it doesn’t quite explain how the SNP plans to finance its childcare revolution. Nicola Sturgeon initially had a different explanation of the need to wait until after independence. She said the Scottish Government couldn’t spend such a large amount on childcare services only to see economic benefit (tax contributions from working mothers) flow to the London Treasury. But the same argument could be used to counter any Scottish investment in better social care – free personal care for example allows 50-something daughters to remain in work paying taxes instead of leaving work to care for their mums and dads. That means devolved expenditure on free personal care could also be seen as a “leakage” from its limited coffers by the Scottish Government – it isn’t.

There are two other flies in the ointment. The SNP promise 1,140 hours for all three-and four-year-olds and vulnerable twos in the first independent Scottish Parliament at an estimated cost of £600m. Only after that – once the benefits of mothers returning to the workplace bring more tax receipts into the Scottish Treasury – would the final (currently uncosted) part of the strategy kick in with all children over one receiving 1,140 hours of free childcare by the end of 2024. In other words, the bulk of expenditure on early years would have to be made before any rising tide of tax income and before any likely savings from the abandonment of spending on Trident. Of course, full control over all budgets would present other raiding opportunities.

But childcare is not a one-off. By the Scottish Government’s estimates it’s a £1bn expansion of state spending. The chances of finding that sum easily on day one are low. So why not have a modest means-tested contributory element with a payment cap as most of the Nordic nations do? Low earners are exempt from all payments, but even relatively small contributions help fund high quality care. Why not here? Has the Scottish debate about free, universal service provision become so toxic it cannot be re-opened – even to emulate the unashamedly progressive Nordics?

What’s wrong with a Norwegian-style maximum contribution of £200 per month (effectively £100 thanks to the strength of the Kroner) if it brings change now not later, means 32,000 new jobs pay more than the minimum wage or offers childcare in school holidays and out of normal hours as well?

Could a new state afford this and the 19 months parental leave on full salary which many Swedes rate as important as childcare for wellbeing? If not, which policy should come first? The Scottish Government has just done something big and controversial. It has asserted that early years are vital in the formation of healthy adults, has proposed a universal, free service operating throughout the school year and has given the project a higher political and funding priority than all other social policy interventions.

I hope this transformational shift will be funded – however Scots vote next year. But do experts, interest groups and the usual suspects really have no opinion?